“Asparagus was one of the code words aspies
used to discuss their syndrome in public, as in “Do you think Sam might have a bit
Distracted by my own thoughts, I
quibbled my way through the first half of Audrey Schulman’s Three Weeks in December
hooked in up to its dual climaxes -- and
then returned to quibbling at book’s end.
At once, I found this book compelling
and contrived, ambitious and over-structured, too neat and a mess.
In spite of myself, I engaged.
Knowing too much and too little
about Autism/Asperger’s syndrome, the lives of gay men in the 1890s and what
life is like in Maine got in my way.
Weeks in December
has intertwining strands, a double helix of stories about
marginalized characters from Maine. The first is a gay man and engineer from Bangor who
travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 20th century to build a
railroad. The second is a mixed-race female ethnobotanist with Asperger’s
syndrome from Bangor who travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 21st
century to locate a medicinal plant for a pharmaceutical company. The stories
alternate chapters as the December days parallel and proceed in their
respective countdowns to new centuries.
In Jeremy’s tale the railroad
building is slowed by death and fear. While more of the men he supervises die
from malaria, it’s the fatal attacks by two lions that create the superstition
and fear that threaten to undermine the project. Jeremy as white leader, becomes the must-be lion
slayer. In doing so he discovers his manhood and authority and falls in
love --whatever that may mean for him.
Max’s tale, the more complex and
interesting of the two, involves locating a plant that holds significant
beta-blockers that could be used in the treatment of heart disease. The plant, discovered by gorillas that display
its benefits is sent by a French woman studying the gorillas to a chemist at the
pharmaceutical company that hires Max.
In a devil’s bargain, the French primatologist
agrees to host Max in return for guards hired by the pharmaceutical company to
protect the gorilla’s territory. She does not, however, agree to help Max in
her quest, nor does she believe Max will achieve her goal.
Complicating the situation at the
research station is that the area is threatened by the Kutu, a band of drug-crazed
young boys who kill for a warlord – and cannibalize those they kill. The Kutu
are in the Congo, only tens of miles from the station. And getting nearer.
Early on I start: Where’s the Maine connection?
It’s just a place the protagonists come from
--- and could be Anywhere, Small town/city USA. Schulman could have blindly
opened an atlas, stuck her finger to land in any state where there ‘s woods,
farms and a high school. Because Maine is among my favorite places in the
universe, I’m disappointed. No way to treat this great state.
if as a reader I get nothing about Maine, I get a full lesson in Asperger’s
syndrome something I also know a few things about. (Disclosure: I lived in
Maine for 40 or so years and worked in special education there from 2000 to
When Max is
first introduced to new colleagues at the station, one asks if she has a
disease. No, Max replies, she has Asperger’s and another explains that it is
not a disease but a “mild version of autism.”
Max, like everybody else we are told, falls on
what is called the Autism spectrum. Because Max is intelligent and employed,
she would fall on the high end of the spectrum. However, my best guess is she
would likely have been diagnosed as having High Functioning Autism rather than
Asperger’s. (The difference, according to autism expert Temple Grandin is that
those with High functioning Autism have language delays while those with
Asperger’s do not. Max does.
No matter. Ours is not to diagnose.
Max is fictional. Whatever we call her
condition, it is hardly “mild.”
Max flaps, sensory overloads,
counts, avoids eye contact. She bangs her head against the wall, has narrow
interests, and relates better to plants than people.
Many of the detailed sensory
descriptions are both edifying and absorbing. Schulman’s language can be
beautiful. But….. the teachy quality of
the writing also obtrudes. Max sometimes seems to be a walking-talking hanger
draped with autistic traits -- with a
dash of Tourette’s. She presents as case
study turned character.
While those in the field likely
would have been encouraged in special education jargon to use “person first”
language -- that is Max is a person with Asperger’s as opposed to Max is an
Aspie, -- Max self-identifies as an “Aspie,” that is with her symptoms rather
than her humanity.
however, is anachronistic. Schulman hedges on this issue:
“Two decades ago, when Max was
growing up, not much was known about Asperger’s. Confused with psychosis, it
had yet to be officially classified as a condition in the United States, much
less have a standard treatment.”
Some history she leaves out: First
described in the 1940s by the German Hans Asperger, a paper describing the syndrome
that bears his name was not translated into English until 1991; the diagnosis subsequently
entered the DSMIV in 1994 – just six years – and it took a while to be applied--
before this story takes place when the fictional Max was 20 or 21. (I estimate Max’s age as 27 or 28 in 2000 given
that she has completed postdoctoral studies.
So it’s likely Max would
originally been diagnosed as autistic or something other than Asperger’s.
Further, the more casual word “Aspie,” first appeared in print in 1999 and has
become common only within the last decade.
Tiny points. (That’s what quibble
means). Why care when the distinction is about to change again when the DSM is
revised next with the diagnosis for Asperger’s eliminated altogether?
Why care when it seems Schulman gets
so many of the autistic traits so right? I completely buy into Max’s high school
sexual encounters, for example, even as I find her talking to a cucumber that
she has covered in a condom a bit too cute.
I care less about the inconsistency
than the probable reason for it – maintaining the book’s structure at the
expense of accuracy. Because so much seems right, minor oddities stand out. It’s as if a hostess with a sparklingly clean house
has hidden dirty dishes hidden in the oven. Both what’s right and what’s not
compromise Max’s authenticity.
By contrast, I have no personal knowledge to get in the way of Jeremy’s
story. I can’t even imagine what it might have been like to be a gay man in
Bangor, Maine, let alone Rwanda, in 1899. And while I suspect Schulman can’t
either, I let it go.
the niggling question of structure. In novels, I prefer structure that supports
narrative, rather than narrative that supports structure. (Unless we're talking fables). Schulman has so
neatly tied these stories to days and years to make an overarching thematic point
comparing the centuries that she’s forced to stick with the years even when
they don’t quite work.
the two hunts capture me.
I read on. Three quarters of the way through, I’m hooked.
And surprised that I’m hooked. Max’s humanity both ironically and fittingly
takes over once she’s among the gorillas. She mimics them. She understands them. She
cares about them – and so do I. Both the humans and the gorillas are threatened
as the Kutu close in. All my quibbling
ends, tension builds, and I can’t wait to return to Max’s story each time I have
to put it down.
I am still only mildly interested
in Jeremy’s plight. And then in the final pages, the two stories find a way to connect,
and I begin quibbling again. Too neat.
One way of
thinking about those with Asperger’s is that they lack theory of mind; that is
they don’t see that others think differently. Here, I know mine is
a unique reading of Schulman’s book. I know others will not read it this way. Another way of thinking about those with
autism is that they get so fixated on details, they can't see the big picture. While I tend to be a big picture type, in this
reading I (almost) got stuck on details; So, I’ve touch
of Asparagus. That’s okay.
Asparagus is a vegetable I very